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The Politics of Crocodile Attacks in Mozambique

In rural Bawa, Mozambique, fetching water and washing clothes have become dangerous activities. For members of certain communities, working near rivers involves a constant, if elusive, danger: crocodile attacks. At first glance, these attacks seem easily avoidable with the help of the central government in Maputo—building wells to provide alternative sources of water or even helping to relocate communities seem to be relatively straightforward policy solutions to a seemingly straightforward problem. Instead, as journalist Rowan Moore Gerety notes in his recent book, Go Tell the Crocodiles, the central government has chosen to send posses of crocodile hunters to conduct annual culls in the affected zone. This is easier said than done—many of these crocodiles grow to be several meters long and are very difficult to kill. Consequently, the hunters tend to kill the smaller crocodiles and leave the strong and dangerous ones alone, failing to substantially address the issue. If more effective solutions seem clear, why has the government failed to seriously grapple with the issue?

In approaching this question, one must understand first that these attacks are not merely consequences of ecology—they are intricately interwoven into the country’s politics—and second, that the crocodile question is a microcosm of a broader political history in Mozambique. The true issue lies in a systematic unwillingness of Mozambique’s ruling party, the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO), to seriously address the concerns of the country’s rural citizens. While it would be reductive to attribute this phenomenon to any single factor, one particular feature of Mozambique’s politics weighs heavily: FRELIMO’s liberation-era ideology was, and to a certain extent remains, skeptical of the country’s so-called “traditional” political structures and values, particularly as they existed in the rural parts of the country. The upshot of this ideology, and the anti-tradition policy initiatives it spawned, has been a rupture in  the relationship between the state and rural citizen. Put simply, the party historically viewed traditional, non-urban elements of the country as outside its vision for a post-colonial Mozambique. And while this relentless drive to force the country into FRELIMO’s vision of modernization has faded in importance over time, this anti-rural bias lingers, continuing to influence how FRELIMO prioritizes its constituents.

FRELIMO’s hostility toward “tradition” has its roots in the party’s approach to dealing with the legacies of Portuguese colonialism. This is because many, though by no means all, forms of “traditional” authority, as it exists in post-independence Mozambique, are holdover institutions from the colonial era with limited continuities from the pre-colonial past. During the colonial period, the Portuguese divided the administration of Mozambique into two categories: settler communities, which were to be managed by the Portuguese administrators, and indigenous communities, which were to be managed by “traditional” authorities. These institutions, while based in kinship and comprised of native Mozambicans, were indirectly managed by the Portuguese, who appointed or coopted chiefs—the so-called régulosand often created chieftaincies where they had not previously existed. The logic behind this bifurcated system of rule was to create a political framework in which local administrators were dependent on the colonial metropole for political power yet which could also absorb local shocks and carry out most functions of governance. Since the Portuguese conquest of Mozambique, then, these local, “traditional” institutions, colonial enforcers though they were, simultaneously served as the primary arbitrators of local disputes, retainers of local customary law and political centers of communities that otherwise had no conception of nationhood.

Consequently, when FRELIMO began to develop a coherent liberation ideology to justify its armed struggle against Portugal and explain its vision for the future in the mid-1960s, its leaders couched their philosophy in notions of “modernization” that viewed so-called traditional actors in society as retrograde and sympathetic to colonialism. Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, summarizes the ideology neatly, famously noting that “uniting all Mozambicans beyond their diverse traditions and languages requires the tribe to die for the nation to be born.” Following independence, FRELIMO was able to transform its ideology into policy, and quickly dismantled rural kinship networks, repressing customary rule and legally proscribing régulo participation in the national party-state.

These efforts were, overall, unsuccessful. Beyond highlighting the limits of a post-colonial government’s capacity to reify every single aspect of its liberation ideology into a new, real-life nation-state, FRELIMO’s experiment with modernization has had significant implications for life in modern-day rural Mozambique. First, it alienated rural voters, whose primary political and social interactions were, for several generations, largely built around the very institutions FRELIMO sought to dismantle. But while most Mozambicans saw FRELIMO as the legitimate representative of the nascent nation following independence, its anti-traditionalist campaign quickly undermined its political legitimacy among rural citizens. As a consequence of this policy, many of these same rural Mozambicans began to support FRELIMO’s rival, the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), which, though quite literally having begun as a mere tool of Rhodesian intelligence operatives to undermine the new Mozambican government, has transformed itself into a coherent political party, aligned with “traditional” and rural interests.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that the legacy of anti-traditionalist ideology still influences FRELIMO’s policymaking priorities, and is key in understanding why Maputo is seemingly indifferent toward crocodile attacks in villages like Bawa—a place deep in the interior whose residents, according to Gerety, the author, believe attacks are often the results of witchcraft. Many of the country’s current political elite were politically socialized in a post-colonial milieu that sought to root out the values and institutions that characterize places like Bawa. Yet as these intensive modernization projects in the interior failed, hostility metamorphosed into cooptation and neglect. For example, certain “traditional” chiefs were rehabilitated and endowed with government recognition by decree in 2000, but were required to register with the state and have responsibilities outlined by Maputo. These acts, while good first steps, are, like the crocodile cullings, limited, and designed more to placate than to substantively engage with rural concerns. The reinstitution of some régulos, for example, followed a perilously close election in 1999. Of course, reintegrating chiefs is a more significant policy initiative than annual crocodile hunts, and is a radical departure in FRELIMO’s policy, but both point to a program of limited policy engagement with rural citizens, which takes place only when necessary to sustain the party’s electoral viability.

FRELIMO leaders are instead more inclined to dedicate their energies to issues in areas of Mozambique that conform to FRELIMO’s historic vision of “modernity,” or which are at least in the process of reaching that modernity. Beyond unaddressed crocodile attacks, FRELIMO has failed to provide basic social goods to rural Mozambicans—less than 10 percent of rural citizens have access to electricity and basic sanitation. What’s more, 50 percent of all Mozambicans live below the poverty threshold used by the World Bank, yet this poverty is concentrated in rural zones of the country. And while Mozambique has been growing rapidly, this growth has been profoundly unequal along urban-rural lines, to the benefit of large cities. The World Bank estimates that if this growth was more equally distributed, an additional two million Mozambicans would have been lifted out of poverty between 1997 and 2009. And while the economies of four primarily rural provinces—Sofala, Zambezia, Manica and Gaza—actually contracted in 2016, urban growth has been breath-taking. Maputo’s economy, for example, grew at an average rate of 7.3% between 2002 and 2012. And of course, while faster economic development in the cities over the interior does not indicate, per se, that Maputo is neglecting rural citizens, there are peculiarities in Mozambique that suggest its rural communities are receiving less attention than their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, for each percentage of economic growth Mozambique experienced between 1996 and 2009, poverty declined by 0.26 percent. Yet this is only approximately half of the average in sub-Saharan Africa over the same period. This is largely because growth has been concentrated in urban zones of the country, where only approximately a third of the population lives.

FRELIMO’s post-independence approach to modernization, then, is not merely an historical idiosyncrasy of Mozambican Marxism without contemporary import—it is an enduring influence on rural politics today. Patrick Chabal, a former professor of Lusophone Africa at King’s College London, once noted that all post-colonial African states go through a process of “political Africanization,” where the legacies of colonialism are assimilated, appropriated and transfigured by post-colonial states themselves. While these legacies are not determinative by themselves, and become less so over time, how states respond to these challenges can define political and social relations in the long-term. In Mozambique, FRELIMO chose to grapple with the legacy of Portuguese colonialism by rooting out anything associated with the colonial era—this included the supposedly retrograde institutions and value systems of the interior. And while it would be unfair to claim FRELIMO has failed to give any attention to its rural citizens in the past several decades, its legacy of anti-traditionalism has created a tendency to neglect them. Unless FRELIMO actively attempts to overcome the legacy of its anti-ruralism and more seriously addresses the needs of its non-urban constituents—a process which it has time to begin before the election in 2019—urban-rural wealth inequality will continue to worsen and Bawa’s crocodiles will continue to terrorize the population, annual culls notwithstanding.

Photo: “Nile Crocodile”

About the Author

Connor Cardoso '19 is a Senior Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Connor can be reached at